Facing his impending death, Superman looks to his cousin, Kara Zor-El, to fill the void he is sure to leave once he’s gone. But as Supergirl comes to terms with this enormous responsibility, the mysterious new super-man attempts to fill that void himself.
Forgive me for thinking you needed saving.
Action Comics #51 begins (approximately) where last week’s Batman/Superman #31 left off. After a scuffle with the embodied members of the Chinese Zodiac in New York, Superman leaves Batman behind and heads for National City to rescue Supergirl—who may not actually need any rescuing, after all. Back in Metropolis, the new, shady, powered being (who’s been both saving and terrorizing folks across the country) continues his identity crisis at The Daily Planet, to the misfortune of many, while in China the clearly ill-intending Dr. Omen advances her plans. And as Clark passes the baton to Kara, an old girlfriend shows up, looking for answers.
Who’s the real Superman?
I’ve probably spent too much time these past few weeks talking about who Superman ought to be, and praising the books based on Tomasi’s ability to meet my expectations. On the one hand, this isn’t all that useful to folks lacking any history with the character. And on the other, it does a disservice to both Tomasi and the creators that have come before him, my (unintentional) implication being that Superman’s greatness is an ideal that must be reached, rather than an accomplishment of the skilled writers and artists who have shaped him over the years. And so while I won’t completely ignore my biases going forward, I’ll try to do a better job of explaining the particular merits of Tomasi and company’s take, rather than falling back on their ability to make something familiar.
For me, the exchange in the panel above captures what I enjoy so much about Tomasi’s Man of Steel. It’s easy to get an admirable surface impression of Superman: he’s the most powerful being on the planet, yet he uses that power to help others. This in itself is enough for some folks, and it’s certainly enough to make me root for him, without any other details.
When you look deeper, however, you see that there’s more to it. Clark understands that he can’t save everyone. He will certainly try, but he knows that even his awesome power comes with its own set of limitations. This whole arc seems predicated on that truth. Even if his abilities never fail, time and space need not match Superman’s strength to best him. And so for him, the mission must be more than saving a cat from a tree or a team of astronauts from a doomed space station. It is never less than those things, but it is most definitely more.
So when Clark asks Kara to take over his task—to be a tangible example of what’s right and wrong, in a world that confuses the two—I’m inspired as much as I’m intimidated. I feel the weight of what he’s asking, but I also see the honor of it; I understand Kara’s hesitance, but just as well her acceptance: how could she say no to one so worthy, who has earned her trust with both word and deed? How could she deny the one person who shouldn’t have to ask, but nevertheless will not demand his dying wish?
If you were a fan of Superman before this month, then this is probably comfortingly familiar, especially after what seems like a long absence for what you consider the “true” Superman. But even if you’re the most cynical of Batfans, I dare you not to appreciate him now. This is why even someone as suspicious as Bruce would consider Clark one of his best friends–if not his very best. This is why, in last week’s Batman/Superman, Batman grieves–in his way–the loss of such a one as Superman.
A tangible example of what’s right and wrong
Joining Tomasi this week are penciller Paul Pelletier, inker Sandra Hope-Archer, and colorist Tomeu Morey, and they all uphold the standard set by Mikel Janin in Superman #51 and Doug Mahnke, Jaime Mendoza, and Will Quintana in Batman/Superman #31. Figures are well-proportioned and cleanly inked, environments nicely detailed, and colors bold and distinct page-to-page. The artwork is engaging all on its own, even without the words.
Pelletier’s action is big and dynamic, his establishing shots well-detailed (even when they only occupy a single, small panel) and beautifully-colored by Morey. While his layouts have far too many close-ups for my taste, his angles are generally well-chosen, and he never overuses the tilted camera, making the effect far more impactful when he does use it. What’s more, many of these close-ups are filled with excellent facial work, Pelletier conveying A variety of emotions with subtle moves of the mouth and highly-expressive eyes. None of this would work, of course, without the skillful hand of Hope-Archer, who does an excellent job inking even the most intricate panels in the book (have a look at Supergirl’s eyelashes when Clark activates the computer in the Fortress of Solitude).
A note on the colors: each of the books so far has its own distinct mood, due in large part to the palette. I get that some of this is subjective, and that you might not, for example, interpret Janin’s first few pages’ colors in Superman #51 as “majestic” in the same way that I do, but regardless–there is a distinct feel in each case. At a higher level, both Superman-only books have been noticeably brighter (even the night scene on the last page of Superman was above a well-lit Metropolis) than Batman/Superman, which spends most of its time in either Gotham or New York, both at nighttime. I like the strong identity these location and color choices give to each book; had they all been set in similar locations and times, and colored in similar ways, then the stylistic difference in pencils from issue to issue would probably stick out in a bad way.
It’s not about us, Kara. It’s about them (or, some thoughts about Supergirl).
I’m not all that familiar with Supergirl. I had a bit of experience with her in Jeff Lemire’s run on Justice League United, and like a lot of the comic-reading population of the world, I’ve seen the so-called Matrix Supergirl get her face punched to pudding by Doomsday in the famous Death of Superman story; but outside of those stories, I don’t really know all that much about her (okay, I guess you could count “Zor-El, Blessed of Rao” from that terribly awful–or awfully terrible–video game tie-in, Infinite Crisis: Fight for the Multiverse, but if you’ll promise not to speak of it, so will I). And so I’m not coming into this with as much baggage as I bring for someone like Superman.
For me, the weakest part of this issue comes as Kara fills Clark in on what she’s been doing since his identity went public (during “Truth”, or “Savage Dawn”, or “Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, and Aquaman all go missing from their own titles at the same time for almost a year”). It’s just a lot of exposition. Pelletier and the rest of the artists do the best they can to spice things up with a collage, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a character using a lot of words to tell us something that happened, rather than a story showing us what happened. That said, I can hardly blame Tomasi. Supergirl hasn’t had an in-continuity monthly title since Supergirl #40 came out in March of 2015, and (to my knowledge) she wasn’t featured prominently (or at all) in any of the Superman family of titles since DC You began. She’s an important part of this story, however, and these two pages of exposition are probably the most efficient way to establish some necessary background for Kara after her long absence (both in-universe and out).
Beyond the brief catch-up, I really like how Tomasi writes Supergirl. He has a great feel for dialogue most of the time, and Kara’s speech distinguishes her as much as anything else. Whereas Clark’s sentences are filled with contractions (as I imagine is the case for many a Kansas boy), Kara’s eschew them entirely, and her speech as a whole comes across as more “proper”–or like a non-native speaker who learns a language according to its rules rather than by immersion. It may seem like a small thing, but I think it contributes a great deal toward her having her own identity within the narrative.
To share my other thoughts about Supergirl would probably spoil more than I’m willing to spoil. She’s written very well, and I like her a lot. Beyond that, you’ll have to read for yourself.
Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.
I haven’t yet spent any time talking about the “fringe” elements of the story–namely what’s going on in China with Doctor Omen, and what’s going on in Metropolis with the new S-level individual we first met back in Superman #51–but that’s mainly because they’re still mostly on the fringe. They are clearly poised to come rushing more and more into the foreground in the next few weeks, but we spend a relatively small amount of time with each this week. What we do get is certainly very interesting, particularly in the case of our new “Superman”, and I’m anxiously awaiting the moment when our heroes encounter these new threats.
Speaking of new threats, there’s a friend masquerading as a threat (sort of) for one panel near the end, but the masque is quickly lifted:
I don’t mind spoiling this, the final page, for you, because it isn’t really a secret that we’ll be continuing the story in Superman/Wonder Woman next week, and that Wonder Woman stands a good chance of featuring prominently in a book that bears her name. I’m on the fence about ending this particular issue in this way. If I’m being cynical, I could say that it’s a lazy way to fill up an entire page, especially because it doesn’t reveal anything so much as it sets up what we’re already expecting (Diana’s involvement). On the other hand, putting the page here gives Tomasi the opportunity to hit the ground running next time without having to introduce Wonder Woman. I guess I’ll just settle on “it is what it is” and stop analyzing it.
One final note: both last week’s Batman/Superman #31 and this week’s Action Comics #51 have only twenty pages of story. They’re twenty really good pages of text and art, but it’s still just twenty pages. This was a bigger practical problem last week when I felt like the ending came abruptly, but it’s nevertheless noteworthy that we’ve now had two consecutive weeks with fewer-than-normal page counts.
- You’ve been reading “Super League” and there’s no way you aren’t going to gobble up each new issue in the arc.
- You’ve been wondering what’s up with Supergirl during the recent turbulence in Clark’s life.
- You’ve been wanting to read excellent characters utter excellent dialogue amidst excellent artwork.
- You’ve been missing this sort of Lois lately:
It’s no secret that I’ve been enjoying this story immensely. With Action Comics #51, Peter Tomasi and another skilled team of artists advance the plot as they have throughout: with outstanding characterization, distinct visuals, and an engaging premise. Three installments in, “Super League” is hands-down my most anticipated pull each week. I can’t wait to see what’s in store.